Showing Versus Telling in Your Writing

There are two different narrative modes: the breezy, dash through background information or set up, in which the narrator tells us what’s happening—and sometimes even what to think. The advantage here is the ability to move fast through subject matter and time.

Interior of a Nuu-Chah-Nulth house, west coast of Vancouver Island, c.1776.

But to engage a reader’s full attention specifics are needed, complete with sensory details and dialogue or, in nonfiction, quotes. Writers offer snippets of showing within the general narrative flow or fully unleash its dramatic effect within scenes. That’s showing, and for those new to creative writing—as opposed to correspondence or term papers—this form must be mastered. The goal here is to provide readers with an experience, one that allows them to draw their own conclusions.

Examples of Showing and Telling

Here’s three examples  of telling (with the operative words underlined). In the first and third, the writer gives us her opinion. In the second she provides background details to introduce a character.

  1. He was a scruffy fellow, who shot an intimidating look at me before slouching deep into his old chair by the fire.
  2.  She was a hairdresser, complete with an apron pocket full of clippers and combs.
  3. “Very probably,” said Mrs. Thornton in a short, displeased manner. 

These sentences work well for minor drama, but for a pivotal moment or character it’s best to show readers what that character’s profession is, or that she’s lazy or angry. Here’s those same sentences transformed into showing:

  1. The man slouched deeper into an overstuffed chair by the fire and glowered at me for an instant before he pulled a battered felt hat over his eyes.
  2. She swiped her hand along her sweater, scattering scraps of hair of various colours and weight from every crease and fold, though most of it fell into a pouch full of clippers and combs that hung about her waist. 
  3. Mrs. Thornton’s brow creased into a frown. “Just as you wish,” she said before turning to march back to the kitchen.

Alice LaPlante, in The Making of a Story, reminds us that both forms of writing have their place. Notice how few words were needed to simply tell the reader the facts, compared to what’s needed to show it. The trick is to learn how to write showing details and when and where to include them.

Try the ‘Camera Trick’ to Test for Showing

Even if you’re writing straight up nonfiction, it’s illuminating to  practise writing scenes, layering in specific and sensory details. Once you’re happy with it, run that scene through LaPlante’s ‘camera trick.’ Imagine you’re a cinematographer, capturing the action on film. Underline the parts the camera can see. (Note that writing has the additional bonus senses of touch, smell, feel and taste.) The parts you’ve underlined are the showing details. Did you include enough to fully engage your readers’ minds?